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Connecting women and opportunity

Womanthology is a digital magazine and professional community powered by female energy and ingenuity.

Connecting women and opportunity

Womanthology is a digital magazine and professional community powered by female energy and ingenuity.

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Ode to Jurassic Park: Bridging the gap between movie magic and real science

Dr Elena Cuesta Fidalgo, Theropod Paleontologist

Dr Elena Cuesta Fidalgo

Dr Elena Cuesta Fidalgo is a theropod paleontologist. In her Soapbox Science talk, she discusses her paleontology work in the Patagonian Desert. The title of her talk is Jurassic Argentinian Park: Dinosaurs from Patagonia!”, where she outlines the process palaeontologists use and how these helps classify ‘new’ dinosaurs. It will take place between 2pm to 5pm on Saturday 6th July 2024 at Rindermarkt in Munich.

Dr Elena Cuesta Fidalgo
Dr Elena Cuesta Fidalgo

“One reason science progresses is because of diverse perspectives. If everyone in science thinks the same way, it’s hard to have different viewpoints or discussions. We might start to believe there’s only one truth, which is dangerous for scientific progress. If we only see the world from one perspective, it’s biased.”

Ode to Jurassic Park

The story of my journey into paleontology started when was very young. I was born in the Canary Islands, a small archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It is one of the most amazing places in the world to grow up, surrounded by nature. Living in this amazing environment of big lizards, volcanoes, and amazing forests, I decided to dedicate my life to natural sciences.

The final thing that made me choose paleontology was seeing Jurassic Park in 1993. It was the film that literally changed my life! When I saw Dr Ellie Sattler on the screen, I knew that I wanted to be like her when I was an adult and working to ‘find dinosaurs’.

With this idea of becoming a paleontologist, I moved to Madrid to study for a bachelor’s degree in geology, choosing a specialty in paleontology. In the last year of my degree, I had the good fortune to meet one of the world’s experts in dinosaur paleontology, Dr José Luis Sanz, who asked me to do a PhD about an amazing dinosaur, Concavenator corcovatus. That was the opportunity I had dreamed of all my life.

So, after finishing my degree in 2010, I continued my education with a master’s degree in sedimentology and environmental geology. This master’s degree was a bridge-builder between my bachelor’s and my posterior doctoral studies, and I could embark on the huge adventure that has been my palaeontological career.

Concavenator is a carnivorous dinosaur (a theropod dinosaur, meaning it walked on two legs and had claws on each limb) from the Early Cretaceous period. My PhD project centred around working on a gorgeous fossil, which was completely preserved, which allowed me to develop so many skills as a theropod expert, including my knowledge of anatomy, evolution, and zoology.

I finished my PhD in biology in 2017, and after that, I have worked as a researcher in several countries and institutions. My first step was joining the Fukui Prefectural University in Japan for a year, where I was able to learn more about my second passion in life, Japanese culture. After that, I continued working in several institutions, such as the Paleontological Museum of Munich in Germany, the Egidio Feruglio Museum of Trelew, in Argentinean Patagonia, and the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, where I am currently a Marie Curie Fellow.

A day in the life of a real paleontologist

Everyone thinks paleontologists spend most days of the year excavating and looking for new fossils. Although I’d love this to be true, in reality we spend more time in the office than in the field.  Field trips for excavation or prospection (walking around in the field to find new potential fossil sites) are usually in summer, when the weather is better, or there are not so many academic duties, and the campaigns normally have a duration of weeks or a couple of months for the year. For me, this is one of the best parts of my job.

Dr Elena Cuesta Fidalgo
Elena during a field trip in Patagonia, using the pneumatic pick hammer to break rocks

Depending on the campaign, the routine is different, sometimes you can even go back to your home to sleep, but my favourites are those I had the pleasure to be part of in Patagonia. These field trips last around one month in the middle of nowhere in the Patagonian Desert.

You spend time wild camping, surrounded by amazing nature, completely offline and far from civilization. Despite this, you have great experiences and many fun anecdotes with your colleagues. One funny incident happened when I was sleeping in my tent under a tree. Early in the morning, my tent started shaking as if there was an earthquake, with loud thuds like stones falling. It turned out to a herd of goats. Luckily, nothing serious happened — just my screams and everyone laughing about the “goat attack.” In a place where pumas roam, a goat attack isn’t so bad!

For most of the year, I work in my office at the university. As a paleontologist, I study the evolutionary history of theropod dinosaurs. My research involves comparing the bones of different theropod species (mostly carnivorous) to identify common features and determine their relationships and evolutionary history.

My main computer work is using several types of software to find phylogenetic trees, which show the relationship and evolution traits of different species and groups of dinosaurs. To do that, I must check different features in the bones of these species from the bibliography of pictures and notes I have collected on my trips. For that reason, sometimes another of my important tasks is to travel to visit collections in museums around the world.

Normally, these trips take a couple of weeks, during time which I can check all the fossils of the species I’m interested in, take pictures, notes, and descriptions, and look for the striking features to compare with my target dinosaurs.

At the moment I am researching two theropod dinosaurs from the Early Jurassic period in Patagonia, Argentina. This study is important to understand what happened after an extinction event when many main groups of theropods may have originated. To do this, I visit collections with dinosaurs related to these two species and those that lived at the same time. For example, last year, I visited Carnotaurus fossils at the Museo Bernardino Rivadavia in Buenos Aires. This year, I plan to visit collections in Oxford, where the first described dinosaur fossils from 200 years ago are housed.

What dinosaurs teach us

In my career so far, I’ve focused on understanding the evolution of certain groups. Initially, I studied carcharodontosaurids, a fascinating group of dinosaurs that lived during the Cretaceous period, mostly in the Southern Hemisphere. Some of these grew to an enormous size!

Dr Elena Cuesta Fidalgo
Elena reviewing fossil material of theropod in museum collections in the United States

After that, I researched another group of theropods called ornithomimosaurs, which lived mostly in Asia and North America during the Cretaceous period. These dinosaurs were unique because, despite being theropods, it was likely that they ate plants. I focused so much of these specific groups that I started to overlook developments in other areas of study.

My current research explores many different types of theropods because I’m interested in understanding the evolutionary history of a large group called Averostra, which includes most subgroups. This research gives me a broader perspective in my field and helps me improve as a paleontologist, which I find fascinating! Additionally, the Early Jurassic period, about 183 million years ago, is crucial in Earth’s history. During this time, an event called the Toarcian Anoxic Event occurred, marked by extensive volcanic activity that raised global temperatures, acidified the oceans, and led to a significant loss of biodiversity — one of the important extinction events in our planet’s history.

After a big extinction event, many groups had the chance to spread out and fill the empty spaces left behind. This spreading out is called ‘radiation’, and it’s what happened to the groups within Averostra — they diversified, with many new species appearing.

Understanding how this affected their evolution is fascinating! I hope the results of my project will give us information about how these dinosaurs evolved after the extinction event. This information could be useful for paleontologists and also for experts in ecology, evolutionary biology, and zoology. Describing two famous types of dinosaurs from Chubut Province in Patagonia will help us learn more about theropod dinosaurs from this area. This will make the exhibits at the Egidio Feruglio Museum more valuable and increase the social and educational value of the Trelew, Chubut, and Patagonia regions.

Diverse perspectives move science forward

One of the most enriching experiences of my life has been working with people from different countries. Each person has their own background and perspective, which greatly enhances science. Science is always evolving; the ideas from centuries ago are different from what we have now, and we’ll continue to discover new things in the future.

One reason science progresses is because of diverse perspectives. If everyone in science thinks the same way it’s hard to have different viewpoints or discussions. We might start to believe there’s only one truth, which is dangerous for scientific progress. If we only see the world from one perspective it’s biased.

Dr Elena Cuesta Fidalgo
Elena reviewing fossil material of theropod in museum collections in Argentina

Including diversity in science — whether in ethnicity, gender, age, religion, language, abilities, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or country of origin — helps us understand different realities and experiences. In my opinion, this is essential for creating a society that respects everyone and the environment. Academia should prioritise including diverse people to advance education, knowledge, and wisdom.

Flying the flag and representing female paleontologists

One day, I received an email from my university, Ludwig-Maximilian, about Soapbox Science, an annual event where female scientists can share their research with the public in a fun and relaxed way, right in the middle of the square! I was immediately interested because I love outreach activities.

It’s exciting to see people interested in your research, and the questions they ask can make you think. It’s another example of how diversity improves science! Events like Soapbox Science help change misconceptions people often have about scientists.

For example, when you think of a paleontologist, you might picture a man with a hat, a square shirt, and a beard covered in dust, probably from the United States, but that’s just a stereotype. Yes, there are male paleontologists who fit that description, and I sometimes do too when I’m on a field trip, but there are many fields within paleontology, like paleochemistry or molecular paleobiology, where people work in labs.

I have had the pleasure of belonging for many years to the Spanish Association of Women in Palaeontology, Mujeres con los pies en la Tierra, where we work to create safe spaces in our field and give visibility to all the issues that we face. One of these issues is that, unfortunately, dinosaur paleontology still has more men, especially in top positions, and they’re often the ones we see in the media. But there are many women from all over the world working on dinosaurs whose work deserves recognition.  That’s why events like Soapbox Science are great—they show the public that women are in science and that our research is fascinating!

Sharing my work

My talk at this year’s Soapbox Science event, 2024, is called “Jurassic Argentinian Park: Dinosaurs from Patagonia!” Can you guess what it’s about? Yes, dinosaurs! But not just any dinosaurs—my favourites, the theropod dinosaurs!

I’ll talk about our expeditions in the Patagonian Desert, the amazing dinosaurs we find there, and what I do in my day-to-day work. It might sound funny to “search for a dinosaur” in the desert, but what happens after we find a new fossil?

I’ll show you the process: how we describe fossils, what features we look for, and what a phylogenetic analysis is and how it helps us classify new dinosaurs. There will be lots of graphics, drawings, and pictures from our field trips, and even a cool board game called “How to classify my dinosaur?”

You can touch and observe 3D-printed skulls of theropod dinosaurs like Carnotaurus or Tyrannosaurus rex (not to scale, of course!). So, if you want to be a paleontologist for a day, I invite you to join me in Munich on 6th July 2024 from 2pm to 5pm at Rindermarkt.

Join in!

It’s not enough for our research to be shared just on the day of the event. It’s important to spread the word beyond that day. Science communication should happen all the time and through different platforms to reach more people! I’m excited to share my experience and show how diverse science is, how women have always been part of it, and how scientists are approachable. Inspiring people and sharing science with them is something I find fascinating! So, I’m thrilled to participate in Womanthology and to reach more people with my research.

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